Sheldon Yellen was flabbergasted.
“Did anybody write down any questions?” Yellen, the vice chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo’s 2014 UJF Campaign Community Kickoff Dinner, asked after a pause at the microphone Monday night in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. “I don’t even know what to say.”
For a moment or two, neither did anyone else in the crowd of more than 600.
Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., and Democratic candidate in his home state’s special election for the U.S. Senate, had just taken their collective breaths away with a fast-paced, humor-filled speech.
He began with a reference to the recent observance of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and, after noting to laughter that he was “the biggest goy in the room,” said he would like to be the stand-in rabbi and do a D’var Torah, the traditional talk on a Torah topic that ordinarily lasts about 15 minutes.
“I’d like to do a long D’var Torah,” he said, “and I’m hoping to inspire one or two people, I’m hoping some people in this room will come up and tell me you’re right and inspired me to give another $5 or $10 or $20. This is not like in my church. In my church, they’d just pass the collection plate right now.”
Starting with a story about how he was befriended by a young rabbi right after he arrived as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, for the next half-hour he knitted together Jewish tradition, African folk wisdom, his own personal history and the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into an idealistic call to work together for change.
As Jews and Americans, he said, “We are the legacy of a conspiracy of love of a rational people. We all drink deeply of freedom and liberty. And we all have an obligation to continue the work that was begun before us. ... There’s an old African parable – ‘If you want to go far, go alone. If you want to go farther, go together.’ That’s what the Federation is all about.”
When questions finally arose, they weren’t written down. A cordless microphone was passed into the crowd.
The first one was about the man he is running to succeed the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in office June 3.
After observations about Lautenberg’s public service and his death as an end of an era, Booker added, “Great leadership is leadership that inspires others that they can lead. I pray that I can be that kind of leader.”
The next questions were the kind a presidential candidate would encounter.
The Mideast and Syria? “I almost wish we could turn back the clock and make decisions in hindsight.”
Disillusionment with politics? “If you’re not disillusioned, you need to have your head examined. In politics, you have to spend a significant amount of time raising money.”
His opponents in the primary race?
“Congressman Rush Holt (a scientist) has an incredible mind. I wish he could lend some IQ points to me, and I hope I can serve with the dignity and intelligence he would.”
“If colleges keep jacking up costs, we’re not getting anywhere. I believe that technology is certain to create disruptions in wonderful ways. The Internet should allow us to get the best professors for far less money.”